Finding Meaning Amid My Disabilities
Interview with Robert J. Provan, JD - from
Defending Life (Series 5)
Fr. Frank Pavone:
I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Mr. Robert Provan, who shared
with us his testimony. Let's listen to him now.
Mr. Robert Provan:
I was 5 years old, I had polio and as a result I was completely paralyzed
from the neck down. The first doctors on my case told my parents that I was a
basket case. They said, "You know, he's pretty helpless." They didn't think I
would ever walk again. They didn't think that I would ever be able to live to
21. So they suggested that it would be in my parents' benefit to put me in an
institution because I would be such a burden to them and my younger brothers. It
wouldn't be fair to the rest of the family.
Well, my family didn't take that advice. They found Dr. Pease at Children's
Memorial Hospital in Chicago, IL and he dedicated himself to restoring my
health. Essentially, he made a deal with my parents. He said that if they would
put me in his charge and if they would not pity me and not coddle me, but let
him do his best to make me independent and self-reliant, that he would do
everything he could to restore my health. That meant no special schools, no
special education, no crutches, none of those things. The goal was going to be
to get me out of the bed and onto my feet and back into the real world.
And so for the next five years he did some pretty incredible things in
restoring my health. I had lost the ability...once I could stand up and gain the
ability to move...I had lost the ability to lift my left foot. So he
transplanted muscles in my foot and ankle, restoring that ability. Another
problem was, my right leg is shorter than my left leg. So in order to stimulate
growth in my right leg, he grafted a piece of ivory to the bone and it actually
worked, it stimulated the growth. And I can remember he said, "Bob, you're never
gonna be broke because no matter what happens to you in life, you've got a $25
dollar deposit right down here in your leg."
And then he took muscle tissue from my knees and tied them to my left hip and
my right ribs trying to prevent the curvature of my spine, which was crushing my
heart and my lungs.
And finally when I was old enough at the age of 10, he fused almost every
vertebra I have in my back. That was a pretty painful ordeal. They put me on a
rack like a medieval torture and stretched me out as straight as they could get
me and then built a body cast around me. And I would live inside that cast until
the time of the operation. And when they did the operation they just cut a hole
in the back of the cast and operated on me while I was in the cast. The cast
held me in place. He gave me a 50/50 chance of survival. And he told me that and
I agreed to have the operation because I trusted Dr. Pease. I knew he was
dedicated to helping me and restore my health. At the age of 10 years old I
walked out of Children's Memorial Hospital on my own two feet and I have gone on
with what I hope is a productive life.
But I look back and I think that if we had had managed care back then, in
1949, if the hospital had had financial incentives to limit care to me and if
the quality of life was the ethic rather than the sanctity of life, would I be
here today talking to you? I don't think I would be. I don't think I would have
gotten the care I needed and to me we're turning the American medical system
upside down. We're developing a healthcare system that is providing health care
to the healthy but denying it to the truly sick.
I think it's all, it's a self-centered philosophy. More and more and more we
hear about self-esteem, self-awareness, self-fulfillment, self-realization,
everything starts with the self. But I think that true medicine should be
dedicated to the person to caring for someone else.
Some of these ethicists, you know, try to sell, and euthanasia advocates, try
to sell their program by focusing on the person with a disability and saying,
"If I had that disability, I wouldn't want to be alive. How could they want to
be alive? And really it's a little bit selfish for that person to want to
continue to live and for us to spend so much money on them."
Because they can't even imagine that that person can enjoy life. But I can
remember, when I was paralyzed, how happy I was when my mother walked through
the door to pay me a visit. I can remember one time I was lying in bed and it
was Christmas and I was feeling pretty low and some high school groups came
through the hospital and were singing Christmas carols in the hall...how happy I
was to hear their voice.
It's not true that people with disabilities cannot enjoy life. They can. And
it's not true that their life has no meaning. I had a client whose husband was a
member of right to life. He'd been a surgeon and he suffered a stroke and he
lapsed into a persistent vegetative state. My client was his wife and she was
horrified because the doctors at the hospital had tried to withdraw his life
support and his food and fluids without her consent. She went to the charts and
found that one of the doctors had actually written on his chart, "This patient's
life is meaningless." And she looked at me and she said, "You know what Mr.
Provan, that's not true. I gain a lot of meaning in my life by taking care of my
husband and so do others who love him and care for him." And I thought..."That
is so true." That's where we gain our meaning. That's where we gain our
It made me remember about a time when I was in Butler, PA in my early 20's. I
was out of work and out of school. I had no money and I was feeling pretty
depressed about it. I felt life was passing me by and I wasn't getting anywhere.
So, I got to the point where I just had to get outside and I went for a
walk...and it was about suppertime...and I looked up and realized that I was
standing in front of a Catholic Church. I'm not Catholic but I thought, "I need
help." So, I went in and I looked around and someone said, "Can I help you?" I
said, "I need to talk to a priest." And I guess my manner told him I did need to talk to a priest. So he said, "Ok, you just sit down right here and
we'll go get a priest." So I sat down and I thought, "I don't know if I'm doing
the right thing here."
I was hoping for sort of a Barry Fitzgerald, warm, wise priest to come in.
Instead, in comes this young priest about a year or two older than me. I was
really disappointed. I thought, "What can this guy tell me?" He came in, he was
very polite, he sat down, he let me pour my heart out, all my troubles, all my
Towards the end he said, "Do you have a sister?" And I thought, "What a
question to ask." I said, "Yes, I have a sister." [He asked,] "What's her name"?
[I said,]"Cindy." [He told me,] "Well I want you to go back to your house and I
want you to do something for Cindy. Something little. Don't make a big deal out
of it and don't seek any reward." I said "Ok, what else?" He said, "Do that once
a day for seven days, do it for a week." "OK," I said, "Is that it?" and he
said, "Yes." So I said, "Alright."
I left, walked up the hill and I thought, "I knew that guy couldn't help me."
But I went home and I thought, "Why not?" So I thought about something that I
could do for Cindy and I did and she looked at me and said "Are you doing this
for me?" I said "yea." [She said] "Thank you, Bobby." I said, "You're welcome."
Next day I thought of something else, the third day I thought, "What can I do
for Cindy today?" I had to think about it. And by the fourth day it hit me. I
wasn't worrying about myself anymore. I was thinking about somebody else. I was
feeling better. The depression I had fallen into was going away. And I realized
that priest taught me a valuable lesson. We are made to care for one another. We
fill our lives with meaning by caring for someone else.
So ever since then, when I feel like I'm worried about myself or I feel a
little depressed or my law suits aren't going very well or whatever it
is...bills that have to be paid… I get down and start focusing on my own
concerns…I suddenly realize, "What am I doing?" and I remember what that young
priest taught me. I immediately say, "What can I do for my wife, Sandy?" "What
can I do for my daughter, Michelle?" "What can I do for that lady I'm
representing that needs health care so bad?" I go to work and immediately I feel
The Lord suffered for us. He tried to teach us something. He tried to teach
us that God made us to care for other people. That's our only way we can be
fulfilled. If we allow for-profit medicine and its new ethical system to become
predominant, we will lose our way; we will lose our soul.
Fr. Frank Pavone:
My gratitude to Mr. Provan and to all of those, who like him, know what it
means to hold onto the dignity of life in the midst of illness and suffering.
This is what the church's response is all about.
Those who push assisted suicide and euthanasia... they cloak it in language
like "help in dying." My dear friends, Mother Theresa helped a lot of people to
die but she helped them to die by helping them to remember their dignity…helping
them to remember that their life was not any less valuable simply because they
could no longer function like other people. She helped them to remember the love
of God and the presence of the Disciples of Christ even when a lot of the rest
of society might reject or ignore them.
To remind a person of his or her dignity even in the most difficult moments,
that is authentic "help in dying." It's not to choose an action that is
going to end that life or shorten that life. The response of the Church to
euthanasia is not simply to say, "This is wrong, you can't end your life." The
response is to say, to those who are suffering, "I am with you." The Lord Jesus
Christ is with us as he helps us to join our sufferings, our weaknesses to his
own passion and death.
You and I can fight assisted suicide and euthanasia in our day by spending
more time with those who are ill, with those who are dying, by making more
sacrifices for them, by praying with them and by letting them know that we will
never abandon them. Let us work and pray everyday for the respect of each and